R4U’s Cllr Neil Hargreaves is the UDC portfolio holder for Budgets and Finance. He’s provided the following update to residents about the progress R4U has made since being elected to lead change at UDC:
My key responsibility at UDC is overseeing the finances. In both years of R4U’s leadership of UDC the annual accounts have been in surplus, and for 2021 this is after covering the council’s own costs for the airport appeal, as well as having a reserve for further costs.
Fixed Council Finances
When Covid would be expected to turn the accounts into deficit, this surplus was achieved because of extra income from our commercial investments. In March last year the Westminster party opposition at UDC tried to block this. At the height of the first Covid panic, when we were busy supporting our communities, eight opposition councillors, led by the Lib-Dems, had time to circulate a very long letter complaining about every aspect of the council’s investment strategy and saying they would not participate in the forthcoming investment decisions. These are voted on by all councillors and such distancing and obstructiveness was because they thought if anything went wrong they could say ‘if only they had listened to us’. The administration took external advice and made the decision to carry on without them.
This has paid off as the council’s property agent now reports that properties similar to those bought have been subject to a bidding frenzy and UDC’s portfolio could now be worth many millions more than the council paid for it. So, the council has achieved good incomes and potential capital gains. That is how at UDC we have financed extra sport provision, £1m spending on climate change measures, £1m spending on post-Covid recovery, and how the council is covering the future £5m a year operating deficit inherited from the previous Conservative administration. And the council still has £500k in reserve against Covid loses.
Planning for the district’s future
The Scrutiny Committee, chaired by an Independent councillor, has just reported to the Cabinet describing work on the Local Plan with words such as detailed, precise, absolute clarity and ‘excellent progress’. The Scrutiny chair was if anything even more complimentary about the Covid business recovery work.
An area still to be re-engineered at UDC is the Planning Application process. When I met with the new interim chief executive, it was clear that implementing changes recommended in an external review of planning processes is one of his top priorities.
We have council houses under construction; have resolved the long-standing inherited problem with developer Persimmon not delivering sport facilities; and the even older problem of having the bin lorry depot in the centre of Dunmow. Councillors recently toured the new bin depot at Little Canfield which is part of a bigger investment by the council to bring new jobs to Uttlesford.
UDC's new commercial property investment in Little Canfield is designed to bring businesses and jobs to Uttlesford
The facilities being installed in the council’s new commercial property are top quality, including showers, a drying room, and computer facilities. The building will also have council meeting rooms and office space and will be part of supporting flexible council working across the district. However, the largest part of the site is being refitted for commercial letting, thus adding to local employment and rental income. The photo shows one of the units to be let. To demonstrate the scale, it is R4U Cllr Judy Emanuel in the doorway, who is our newly elected member for Newport.
R4U's Cllr Judy Emanuel ready to welcome new businesses in to part of the council's new commercial property.
Solid pandemic response
All this work has continued in parallel with delivering pandemic support to residents, supporting the vaccination programme and the many containment measures, and administering seven separate business grant schemes involving over 3000 payments totalling £36m.
There is a great deal more in progress, but a final comment about the new bin lorry depot; as part of the access improvements Essex Highways wanted a mature oak tree removed. The answer from the UDC Finance Officer who also leads on the commercial activities was No – the oak tree stays – a tangible demonstration to the council’s commitment to protecting our environment.
Cllr Neil Hargreaves
Portfolio holder for Budgets and Finance